When I was involved with Kerry, ‘controlled aggression’ was always a mantra we tried to take onto the field.
Of course people strayed from that philosophy at times, but the concept remained an ever present in our dressing room, no matter who was boss or what colour jersey was in front of us. Bomber Liston described it best when he managed my club side Kerins O’Rahillys: you need to be so highly motivated to perform, you are prepared to go right to the point of fighting, but never lose focus and actually fight.
It’s a difficult balance to get right.
Dublin could have done with that same advice on Sunday. They were aggressive, but without any semblance of control. They were physical, but showed no discipline in the tackle or towards the referee.
One without the other is like a Formula One car without brakes, it is fine when you’re speeding down a straight, but you run into serious trouble as soon as you hit the first bend travelling at such speed.
And that bend came too, it came in the shape of Mayo’s dogged refusal to wilt in the same way every other team they have played this year have done.
They were Dublin’s first Division One opponent in championship football since the All-Ireland final of 2013 between the same two sides, and it showed.
It was an action-packed game filled with incident and a steady stream of nastiness. Diarmuid Connolly and Aidan O’Shea as the two respective pack leaders were targeted throughout the 75 minutes with off-the-ball physicality and plenty of verbals. If it was Tyrone or Donegal, there would surely be an inquest into current state of the game.
O’Shea managed to maintain his composure in very testing circumstances, while Connolly didn’t. Connolly eventually succumbed and pays the hefty price next Saturday for his couple of punches when he’s sitting in the Hogan Stand watching the game instead of playing in it.
The first time I came across Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea as a full-forward was an early season national league game in the back end of the last decade on a heavy sod in Tralee’s Austin Stack Park. He was being marked by Tommy Griffin the same day and hardly got a touch. He was young, but couldn’t move back then anywhere close to what he can today, and he sure wasn’t in the same kind of physical shape.
Late in that league game, and for the second time, I was standing on the goal line awaiting a Mayo 45. We were doing a lot of heavy running at the time and there was no juice in the legs by any of us in green and gold.
Mayo had us beaten up a stick – as they often did in league games. I jumped to prevent the score and got my fingertips to the ball as it went over the bar. It was the second time in the match I had got the last touch of the ball from a 45 that led to a Mayo score.
As I was jogging back out to the middle, O’Shea thought he’d be smart and sarcastically thanked me for my two-point scoring contribution to Mayo… “You’re our third highest scorer today big man,” he told me. I looked back at him and started smiling, “it’s more than you fucking managed all game,” I bellowed. He and Tommy G got a fit of laughing. O’Shea didn’t score a point that day and Mayo seemed clueless as to how to best utilise him at the edge of the square. Fast forward a few years to Sunday and Mayo seemed no closer to devising a system of play to take full advantage of his talents.
Far too often, in their willingness to track runners and tackle their way back into a very defensive formation, Mayo were left with no link in the half-forward line. That meant O’Shea was far too isolated when they were attacking and it forced them into kicking aimless ball at him from too deep.
That’s one of key areas Mayo must address this week, keeping a presence between their attacking 45 and 65 and getting support to him quicker when he wins the ball. Small tweaks, but with the potential for a big impact on the replay. Declan O’Sullivan used to run that line for Kerry, over and back across the field, holding his depth and not getting sucked down into the mix. He was the out-ball for defenders racing from the back with possession and he was the link to the full-forward line. Mayo lacked that link guy.
The other stick being used to beat Mayo with since the weekend has been their approach to their kick-out defence against Cluxton. It was obviously a tactical decision to allow Dublin the short kick-out to a corner back, and I felt it was quite clever to start the game that way so as to take the sting out of their restarts. They chose to block out the zones closer to the 45 where Cluxton loves to target.
Mayo flooded bodies into the middle and effectively clogged up the running lanes that Dublin’s midfielders and half-forwards like to burst into. When Dublin get the ball directly to that area of the pitch from the goalkeeper, you’re in big trouble. That’s when they get support runners exploding off the shoulder and they’re off, creating scoring chances within seconds of the restart. As Kerry have done in the past, Mayo tried to identify who they felt was the poorest ball player in that Dublin full- back line and allow him to receive the short kick-out, then press him hard if he tried coming out. Michael Fitzsimmons seemed the man Mayo were most comfortable allowing to receive the goal kick; he being the least comfortable ball player out of Jonny Cooper or Philly McMahon. It was an interesting tactic and one that was effective in slowing down Dublin time and again. I counted 18 kick-outs from Cluxton, with nine of them going right back to the goalkeeper after one pass.
That forced Dublin’s build up to be more ponderous and should have allowed Mayo the time to get organised in defence. But, even with all the extra-time and bodies they afforded themselves defensively, Mayo still presented Dublin with too many one-on-one opportunities at the other end; Ciaran Kilkenny’s eyes in particular lit up in the first-half each time he was isolated with one defender to beat.
Again, if Mayo are to learn anything from their set-up last weekend: it is a pointless exercise having men back there unless they know their specific role. That takes time, and this was their first real attempt at playing such a structured defence. But marking space at this level is a waste of energy; covering defenders must affect the decision-making of the guy in possession of the ball, by getting in a tackle or double teaming an inside-forward or doing something. Mayo had plenty of bodies back, but they lacked any real purpose.
The success Mayo enjoyed when they pressed up hard on the Dublin kick-outs in the last 10 minutes was due to a number of mitigating factors. The Dublin players looked jaded, McCauley was gone, Bastick soon followed, Fenton was done, and most unusually, Cluxton looked as rattled as we’ve ever seen him. His decision making became erratic and the nervousness he displayed rapidly spread throughout his teammates, and suddenly their composure was gone. Mayo simply wouldn’t stop coming at them.
They should have been dead and buried at seven points down, but this Mayo team have a special character.
In fairness to referee Joe McQuillan and his team of officials – who, collectively I felt, handled the game poorly, by allowing the hostility to escalate and not stamping his authority on it early in the match – it was an extremely difficult game to officiate. Players can smell weakness in a referee and will push the boundaries if they feel they will can get away with it. In the second-half it had run away from him, and as temperatures soared, it was like McQuillan was trying to stop an out of control forest fire with a water pistol.
The rules of engagement were set for the players from the opening exchanges. Shoot first, and shoot often. Next Saturday, both teams will be armed with Gatling guns, in a match that is almost impossible to call. But possible suspensions to key Dublin players, and greater scope for improvement by Mayo could just see them sneak into the final.
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